Ancient Scratched Stones: World’s Earliest Maps or Magic Artifacts?

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Ancient Scratched Stones: World’s Earliest Maps or Magic Artifacts?

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Ancient Scratched Stones: World's Earliest Maps or Magic Artifacts?

One of the 5,000-year-old “map stones” discovered on the island of Bornholm in Denmark, which may show fields, fences and crops.

Credit: Bornholms Museum/Skalk Magazine

A set of broken stones covered with etchings of lines and squares, discovered at a 5,000-year-old sacred site in Denmark, may be some of humankind’s earliest maps, according to archaeologists.

The researchers think the inscribed stones are symbolic maps of local landscapes, and were perhaps used in rituals by Stone Age farmers who hoped to magically influence the sun and the fertility of their farmlands.

Fragments of 10 of the “map stones” or “landscape stones” were found in June, during excavations of a round, earth-walled enclosure at the Vasagard archaeological site on Bornholm, a Danish island in the Baltic Sea. [See Photos of the Scratched “Map Stones” Found in Denmark]

Excavations of the enclosure since the 1990s have found hundreds of broken flat stones inscribed with patterns of radiating straight lines, called “sun stones” or “solar stones” (“solsten”in Danish). Archaeologists have said these artifacts are likely from the rituals of a Neolithic sun-worshipping religion that existed about 5,000 years ago.

But the map stones are inscribed with squares and lines that look like fields, fences and plants, said archaeologist Flemming Kaul, the curator and senior researcher in prehistory at the National Museum of Denmark.

“There was one particular stone that seems to be rather complicated, and we all agree that it looks like some sort of a map — not a map in our modern sense, but a stylized map,” Kaul told Live Science. “And I could see some similarities with rock carvings from the Alps in northern Italy, dated to the same period of time, which are interpreted as symbolic landscapes — and that is what I believe we have found now.”

Archaeologists think the lines and squares on the map stones are symbolic representations of Stone Age fields and fences.

Credit: Bornholms Museum/Skalk Magazine

The most detailed of the newly discovered map stones went on display in October at the Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus, Denmark. It measures about 2 inches (5 centimeters) across, and has been broken into three pieces. One triangular piece has not yet been found, the researchers said.

“That is one that seems to be very complex, with different sorts of fields, and something which looks like plants, which could be a symbol for a crop like barley, and other details that look like fences,” Kaul said. “And it’s fascinating that even though it’s so small, you can certainly see that these patterns have been very deliberately made.”

Kaul said the stone was probably crushed during an ancient ritual, like what the researchers saw with many sun stones also found at the site. The pieces were then deposited in the rings of ditches that surround the sacred enclosure sometime between 2900 B.C. and 2700 B.C., according to the archaeologists.

“Often when ritual objects have had a certain life cycle, then they are deposited at a sacred place, perhaps also to enhance the magic of the ritual which has just been performed with them,” Kaul said. “And of course, when they are broken, then they are not working more in the human world — but they are still working in another [spirit] world, by being placed in the ditches of these sacred sites.”

Kaul thinks the map stones and sun stones from Bornholm were used together in ceremonies to influence the effects of the sun on the fertility of a particular piece of land.

“[T]hey could have passed the sun images over the small field images in order to enhance some magic, which could give the sun more light, for example, such as in the spring, when the sun should give more light so that crops can grow,” he added.

Kaul sees a link between the evidence for solar rituals at Bornholm and evidence of similar beliefs elsewhere in Neolithic Europe, a time of transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer groups to settled farming communities.

“Sun images must have something to do with a solar cult — and we have many other European indications of that, such as Stonehenge in Englandfrom about the same time, and passage graves in Ireland that are oriented towards the midwinter sunrise. And now we have these early pictures of the sun in Denmark,” he said.

He also noted the similarities between the map stones from Denmark and rock carvings in the Val Camonica and other Alpine regions of northern Italy and France, which have been interpreted by archaeologists as symbolic farm landscapes used in Neolithic rituals.

“The Italian archaeologists give these square features that they interpret as fields the name of ‘topographical elements’ — so it is not a map in our modern sense, but it is somehow a rendering of fields and field systems,” Kaul said. “And so it is very interesting to find these topographical elements here in Scandinavia, and in this minute form.”

The similarities are not evidence of direct contact throughout Europe 5,000 years ago, but they could reflect common ideas among Neolithic farming peoples about the sun and the fertility of their lands, he said.

“When you also look at the Italian material, then it gives you a feeling that these map stones are not just isolated phenomenon — but that we are looking at a trend of a general European development here, and also in a religious or spiritual sense,” Kaul added.

An article about the map stones from the Vasagaard enclosure on Bornholm, written by archaeologists Jens Andresen of Aarhus University and Michael Thorsen of the Bornholm Museum, was published in October in the Danish archaeological magazine Skalk.

Kaul accepts that the interpretation of the map stones could be controversial: “About 20 years ago, after the first solar stones were found, I wrote about it for Skalk – and even the editor of the magazine didn’t believe it,” he said. “And now, after 20 years, we have found more than 200 solar stones, and they are one the most important things from Bornholm … so let’s wait a couple of years to see if there are more map stones to come.”

Original article on Live Science.

Enigmatic Stone Balls from 5,000 Years Ago Continue to Baffle Archaeologists

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Enigmatic Stone Balls from 5,000 Years Ago Continue to Baffle Archaeologists

Enigmatic Stone Balls from 5,000 Years Ago Continue to Baffle Archaeologists

The 3D models of the carved balls of stone, including the spiral-carved Towie ball (center), are now posted online.

Credit: National Museums Scotland

Some of the most enigmatic human-made objects from Europe’s late Stone Age — intricately carved balls of stone, each about the size of a baseball — continue to baffle archaeologists more than 200 years after they were first discovered.

More than 500 of the enigmatic objects have now been found, most of them in northeast Scotland, but also in the Orkney Islands, England, Ireland and one in Norway.

Archaeologists still don’t know the original purpose or meaning of the Neolithic stone balls, which are recognized as some of the finest examples of Neolithic art found anywhere in the world. But now, they’ve created virtual 3D models of the gorgeous balls, primarily to share with the public. In addition, the models have revealed some new details, including once-hidden patterns in the carvings on the balls. [See More Photos of the Intricately Carved Stone Balls]

Hugo Anderson-Whymark, a curator at National Museums Scotland who created the online models, explained that many functions have been proposed for the stone balls over the years.

Such proposals have included the possibility that they were made as the stone heads for crushing weapons, or standardized weights for Neolithic traders, or rollers for the transport of the giant stones used in megalithic monuments.

One theory is that the knobs on many of the carved stone balls were wound with twine or sinew, which allowed them to be thrown like slings or South American bolas. Other theories describe the balls as objects of religious devotion or symbols of social status.

“Many of the ideas you have to take with a pinch of salt, while there are others that may be plausible,” Anderson-Whymark told Live Science. “What’s interesting is that people really get their imaginations captured by them — they still hold a lot of secrets.”

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has the world’s largest collection of carved stone balls, including around 140 originals from Neolithic (New Stone Age) sites in Scotland and the Orkney Islands, and 60 casts of similar objects from other places.

Although only a few are now on display in Edinburgh, a total of 60 3D models of Neolithic carved stone ballsfrom the museum collection have now been posted online — so that anyone interested in ancient wonders, anywhere in the world, can examine them in detail and from any angle.

The online collection includes the most famous of these objects, the Towie ball, which was found near the village of Towie in northeast Scotland around 1860. The ball is carved with intertwined spiral patterns on three of its four lobes, and is recognized as one of the finest examples of Neolithic art ever found. [In Photos: The World’s Oldest Cave Art]

Some of the 3D models of Neolithic carved stone balls found in Scotland, with the famous Towie ball at the center.

Some of the 3D models of Neolithic carved stone balls found in Scotland, with the famous Towie ball at the center.

Credit: National Museums Scotland

Some early archaeologists found it hard to believe that such intricate objects could have been carved with only stone tools, Anderson-Whymark said, and so they wrongly attributed them to the Picts, who lived in Scotland during the late Iron Age and early Medieval period, between 1800 and 1100 years ago.

But later archaeologists were able to date the carved stone balls to the much earlier Neolithic period of prehistory, about 5,000 years ago, when only stone tools were used, he said.

Many of the ornamental motifs used on the carved stone balls, including the detailed circles and spirals carved into the Towie ball, were also found in carvings at Neolithic passage tombs, which feature underground burial chambers at the end of  long stone-lined passageways, such as the Newgrange tomb in Ireland.

The similarity of the designs could show that people in different regions during the Neolithic period in Europe shared common ideas, which indicated some forms of interaction between their communities, Anderson-Whymark said.

The online 3D models were created with photogrammetry, which involves uniting detailed photographs of the surface textures and colors of the objects with precise data about their size and shape.

The photogrammetry process has revealed new information about some of the balls, by revealing underlying patterns of carved and chipped markings on some of them that otherwise could not be clearly seen, he said.

He thinks that the key to understanding the carved stone balls lies in their “regular” size, which was perfect for being held in the hand while they were chipped or pecked by harder stone tools.

Creating one of the carved stone balls must have been a lengthy process — several of them show signs that their design evolved as they were worked on, perhaps over many years or even across generations, he said.

While discussion and speculation about their purpose and meaning to the Neolithic people will continue, the stone balls are likely to retain much of their enduring mystery, Anderson-Whymark said.

“We might be able to get a little bit more of that story out in the future by more detailed analysis of these things,” he said, “but they’re always going to be slightly enigmatic.”

Original article on Live Science.

Sleeping Beauty’ Mummy Buried with Riches and Snacks for the Afterlife

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Sleeping Beauty’ Mummy Buried with Riches and Snacks for the Afterlife

'Sleeping Beauty' Mummy Buried with Riches and Snacks for the Afterlife
The 2,000-year-old mummy, dubbed Sleeping Beauty, was buried in silk clothes and a beaded belt with a jet buckle.

Credit: Marina Kilunovskaya/The Siberian Times

About 2,000 years ago, during the time Jesus supposedly walked the Earth, people buried a young woman wearing a silk skirt in a stone grave. They surrounded her body with meals for the afterlife, even placing a bag of pine nuts on her chest.

Now, archaeologists have found the mummified body of that woman, whom they nicknamed Sleeping Beauty given the length of time she’s been buried and the riches found with her. These include a beaded belt with a buckle made of jet (a precursor to coal), a Hun-style vase and a round birch container holding a Chinese mirror, according to The Siberian Times. The grave also contained ceramic utensils, which were typically placed in Hun burials, the archaeologists added.

“The mummy was in quite a good condition, with soft tissues, skin, clothing and belongings intact,” an archaeologist who helped discover the Sleeping Beauty told The Siberian Times. [Photos: The Amazing Mummies of Peru and Egypt]

Archaeologists, from St Petersburg’s Institute for the History of Material Culture, found the mummy on the shore of the Yenisei River, just upstream of the giant Sayano-Shushenskaya dam in south-central Russia’s Republic of Khakassia. A drop in water level in May exposed the Sleeping Beauty’s rectangular grave, which had previously sat underwater, the archaeologists said.

“The lower part of the body was especially well-preserved,” Marina Kilunovskaya, an archaeologist at the Institute for the History of Material Culture, told The Siberian Times. “This is not a classic mummy — in this case, the burial was tightly closed with a stone lid, enabling a process of natural mummification.”


The woman was buried with funeral meals and a bag of pine nuts, likely to tide her over in the afterlife.

Credit: Marina Kilunovskaya/The Siberian Times

It’s remarkable that the grave lay undisturbed, especially since the nearby dam began operating between 1978 and 1985, the archaeologists said. An excavation of the grave goods revealed that the mummified person was likely a noblewoman during her lifetime. For instance, the grave goods were ornate, the round makeup container was covered with birch bark and the Chinese mirror within it was housed in a felt case, the archaeologists said.

Going forward, the archaeologists are working to preserve the Sleeping Beauty’s remains and study the artifacts within her grave, the researchers said.

Original article on Live Science.

Photos: Vikings Accessorized with Tiny Metal Dragons

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Photos: Vikings Accessorized with Tiny Metal Dragons



Credit: Photograph by Lena Holmquist; Antiquity 2018

What Is Photosynthesis?

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What Is Photosynthesis?

Photosynthesis takes in the carbon dioxide produced by all breathing organisms and reintroduces oxygen into the atmosphere.

Credit: KPG_Payless | Shutterstock

Photosynthesis is the process used by plants, algae and certain bacteria to harness energy from sunlight into chemical energy.

There are two types of photosynthetic processes: oxygenic photosynthesis and anoxygenic photosynthesis. Oxygenic photosynthesis is the most common and is seen in plants, algae and cyanobacteria.

During oxygenic photosynthesis, light energy transfers electrons from water (H2O) to carbon dioxide (CO2), which produces carbohydrates. In this transfer, the CO2 is “reduced,” or receives electrons, and the water becomes “oxidized,” or loses electrons. Ultimately, oxygen is produced along with carbohydrates.

Oxygenic photosynthesis functions as a counterbalance to respiration; it takes in the carbon dioxide produced by all breathing organisms and reintroduces oxygen into the atmosphere. In his 1998 article, “An Introduction to Photosynthesis and Its Applications,” Wim Vermaas, a professor at Arizona State University surmised, “without [oxygenic] photosynthesis, the oxygen in the atmosphere would be depleted within several thousand years.”

On the other hand, anoxygenic photosynthesis uses electron donors other than water. The process typically occurs in bacteria such as purple bacteria and green sulfur bacteria. “Anoxygenic photosynthesis does not produce oxygen — hence the name,” said David Baum, professor of botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “What is produced depends on the electron donor. For example, many bacteria use the bad-eggs-smelling gas hydrogen sulfide, producing solid sulfur as a byproduct.”

Though both types of photosynthesis are complex, multi-step affairs, the overall process can be neatly summarized as a chemical equation.

Oxygenic photosynthesis is written as follows:

6CO2 + 12H2O + Light Energy → C6H12O6 + 6O2 + 6H2O

Here, six molecules of carbon dioxide (CO2) combine with 12 molecules of water (H2O) using light energy. The end result is the formation of a single carbohydrate molecule (C6H12O6, or glucose) along with six molecules each of breathable oxygen and water.

Similarly, the various anoxygenic photosynthesis reactions can be represented as a single generalized formula:

CO+ 2H2A + Light Energy → [CH2O] + 2A + H2O

As explained by Govindjee and John Whitmarsh in “Concepts in Photobiology: Photosynthesis and Photomorphogenesis” (Narosa Publishers and Kluwer Academic, 1999) the letter ‘A’ in the equation is a variable and ‘H2A’ represents the potential electron donor. For example, ‘A’ may represent sulfur in the electron donor hydrogen sulfide (H2S).

The following are cellular components essential to photosynthesis.


Pigments are molecules that bestow color on plants, algae and bacteria, but they are also responsible for effectively trapping sunlight. Pigments of different colors absorb different wavelengths of light. Below are the three main groups.

  • Chlorophylls: These green-colored pigments are capable of trapping blue and red light. Chlorophylls have three sub-types, dubbed chlorophyll a, chlorophyll b and chlorophyll c. According to Eugene Rabinowitch and Govindjee in their book “Photosynthesis” (Wiley, 1969) chlorophyll a is found in all photosynthesizing plants. There is also a bacterial variant aptly named bacteriochlorophyll, which absorbs infrared light. This pigment is mainly seen in purple and green bacteria, which perform anoxygenic photosynthesis.
  • Carotenoids: These red, orange, or yellow-colored pigments absorb bluish-green light. Examples of carotenoids are xanthophyll (yellow) and carotene (orange) from which carrots get their color.
  • Phycobilins: These red or blue pigments absorb wavelengths of light that are not as well absorbed by chlorophylls and carotenoids. They are seen in cyanobacteria and red algae.

Photosynthetic eukaryotic organisms contain organelles called plastids in their cytoplasm. According to Cheong Xin Chan and Debashish Bhattacharya of Rutgers University (Nature Education, 2010), the double-membraned plastids in plants and algae are referred to as primary plastids, while the multiple-membraned variety found in plankton are called secondary plastids. These organelles generally contain pigments or can store nutrients. In “The Cell: A Molecular Approach 2nd Ed” (Sinauer Associates, 2000), Geoffrey Cooper enumerates the various plastids found in plants. Colorless and non-pigmented leucoplasts store fats and starch, while chromoplasts contain carotenoids and chloroplasts contain chlorophyll.

Photosynthesis occurs in the chloroplasts, specifically, in the grana and stroma regions. The grana is the innermost portion of the organelle; a collection of disc-shaped membranes, stacked into columns like plates. The individual discs are called thylakoids. It is here that the transfer of electrons takes place. The empty spaces between columns of grana constitute the stroma (The Cell: A Molecular Approach 2nd Ed, Sinauer Associates, 2000).

Chloroplasts are similar to mitochondria in that they have their own genome, or collection of genes, contained within circular DNA. These genes encode proteins essential to the organelle and to photosynthesis.  Like mitochondria, chloroplasts are also thought to have originated from primitive bacterial cells through the process of endosymbiosis.

“Plastids originated from engulfed photosynthetic bacteria that were acquired by a single-celled eukaryotic cell more than a billion years ago,” Baum told LiveScience. Baum explained that the analysis of chloroplast genes shows that it was once a member of the group cyanobacteria, “the one group of bacteria that can accomplish oxygenic photosynthesis.”

However, Chan and Bhattacharya (Nature Education, 2010) make the point that the formation of secondary plasmids cannot be well explained by endosymbiosis of cyanobacteria, and that the origins of this class of plastids are still a matter of debate.


Pigment molecules are associated with proteins, which allow them the flexibility to move toward light and toward one another. A large collection of 100 to 5,000 pigment molecules constitutes “antennae,” according to Vermaas. These structures effectively capture light energy from the sun, in the form of photons. Ultimately, light energy must be transferred to a pigment-protein complex that can convert it to chemical energy, in the form of electrons. In plants, for example, light energy is transferred to chlorophyll pigments. The conversion to chemical energy is accomplished when a chlorophyll pigment expels an electron, which can then move on to an appropriate recipient.

Reaction centers

The pigments and proteins which convert light energy to chemical energy and begin the process of electron transfer are know as reaction centers, according to Vermaas.

Anoxygenic photosynthetic and oxygenic photosynthetic organisms use different electron donors for photosynthesis. Moreover, anoxygenic photosynthesis takes place in only one type of reaction center, while oxygenic photosynthesis takes place in two, each of which absorbs a different wavelength of light, according to Govindjee and Whitmarsh. However, the general principles of the two processes are similar. Below are the steps of photosynthesis, focusing on the process as it occurs in plants.

The reactions of plant photosynthesis are divided into those that require the presence of sunlight and those that do not. Both types of reactions take place in chloroplasts: light-dependent reactions in the thylakoid and light-independent reactions in the stroma.

Light-dependent reactions (also called light reactions): When a photon of light hits the reaction center, a pigment molecule such as chlorophyll releases an electron. “The trick to do useful work, is to prevent that electron from finding its way back to its original home,” Baum told LiveScience. “This is not easily avoided because the chlorophyll now has an “electron hole” that tends to pull on nearby electrons.” The released electron manages to escape by traveling through an electron transport chain, which generates the energy needed to produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate, a source of chemical energy for cells) and NADPH. The “electron hole” in the original chlorophyll pigment is filled by taking an electron from water. As a result, oxygen is released into the atmosphere.

Light-independent reactions (also called dark reactions): ATP and NADPH are rich energy sources, which drive dark reactions. During this process carbon dioxide and water combine to form carbohydrates like glucose. This is known as carbon fixation.

Photosynthesis in the future

Photosynthesis generates all the breathable oxygen in the atmosphere, and renders plants rich in nutrients. But researchers have been looking at ways to further harness the power of the process.

In his 1998 article, Vermaas mentions the possibility of using photosynthetic organisms to generate clean burning fuels such as hydrogen or even methane. Vermaas notes, “Even though methane upon combustion will form CO2, the overall atmospheric CO2 balance would not be disturbed as an equal amount of CO2 will have been taken out of the atmosphere upon methane production by the photosynthetic organism.”

Advances have also been made in the field of artificial photosynthesis. A group of researchers recently developed an artificial system to capture carbon dioxide using nanotechnology (nanowires). This feeds into a system of microbes that reduce the carbon dioxide into fuels or polymers by using energy from sunlight.

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Watch Strange, Glowing Bacteria Harpoon and Swallow DNA to Evolve

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Watch Strange, Glowing Bacteria Harpoon and Swallow DNA to Evolve

Watch Strange, Glowing Bacteria Harpoon and Swallow DNA to Evolve

A bacterium “harpoons” a bit of stray DNA in this first-of-its-kind recording. On the left, you can see the scene without the fluorescent dyes. On the right, you can see the scene with the fluorescent dyes.

Credit: Ankur Dalia, Indiana University

In an astonishing new video, a bacterium reaches out into space, snatches a piece of DNA and stuffs that DNA into its own body. Its appendage, much longer than its own body, wanders and bends a little but seems to move with intention toward its target. And the whole act is part of the microbe’s effort to evolve.

The video is the first direct observation of bacteria using appendages called pili to “harpoon” loose DNA and incorporate it into the bacteria’s own genetic structures. It shows how the single-celled organisms pull off a neat trick called “horizontal gene transfer” that lets them adapt quickly to new environments. This would be a bit like if a person who’s allergic to pollen needed only to reach out, snatch some loose flesh from a nonallergic friend and swallow it to get through spring without sneezing. [5 Ways Gut Bacteria Affect Your Health]

Researchers already knew that bacteria needed their pili to pull off horizontal gene transfer, but they’d never seen the maneuver in action, in part because the pili are too tiny to easily observe through a microscope. A single pilus, according to the videographers, is less than one-ten-thousandth the width of a human hair. And the hole the bacteria use to haul the loose DNA into their own single-celled “bodies” is “almost the exact width of a DNA helix bent in half,” the researchers said in a statement.

So, to record the video, the researchers dyed the pili of Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium responsible for cholera, with fluorescent dye. The dye also covered the bacteria and the loose DNA. Then, the researchers stuck the bacteria and stray DNA under a regular microscope and waited to see what the now-glowing organism would do.

The researchers said they hope the findings, which were published June 11 in the journal Nature Microbiology, might be helpful for research into antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Originally published on Live Science.

Corpse of Mysterious Sea Creature Washes Ashore in Namibia

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Corpse of Mysterious Sea Creature Washes Ashore in Namibia

Corpse of Mysterious Sea Creature Washes Ashore in Namibia

Scientists found the decomposed body of a sea creature on Nambian shores. They think it is a Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris).

Credit: Nambian Dolphin Project/Caters News

A bizarre-looking, nearly 20-foot-long (6 meters) sea creature washed ashore at Dorob National Park in Namibia last week. When scientists found the body, it was so decomposed that they didn’t really know what they were looking at — it could’ve been a dolphin or a whale, or something else, according to the Daily Mail.

After measuring the carcass and analyzing the shape of its head, the scientists are now almost certain that the mysterious creature is a Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) — a creature that hasn’t been sighted in Namibia since 2000, according to Simon Elwen, a principal investigator of the nonprofit Namibian Dolphin project and one of the researchers who found the creature, as reported by the Daily Mail.

“I was quite surprised,” Elwen told the Daily Mail. “These animals are rarely seen in the water, so to see them on land is very unique.” [Marine Marvels: Spectacular Photos of Sea Creatures]

Cuvier’s beaked whales can be found across the world and tend live in temperate, subtropical and tropical waters. They can weigh up to 6,800 lbs. (3,090 kilograms) and can grow up to 23 feet (7 m) long, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They have a “goose-like” head with an upward-slanted jawline that makes them look as if they are smiling, according to NOAA.

Because the body was so decomposed, the scientists couldn’t figure out the cause of death, according to the Daily Mail. Though the jawbone was cracked and broken, the scientists think that happened after death, since the creature didn’t have any other visible injuries, according to the Daily Mail.

On the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the Cuvier’s beaked whale is listed as “least concern.” Although global trends and population numbers for this elusive creature don’t exist, there are at least 100,000 of them in the world, according to the IUCN. Possible threats to this species include entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships and human-caused noise, such as from ships.

The Cuvier’s beaked whale is one of the deepest divers — plunging to a depth of about 3,300 feet (1,000 m). In addition, the species uses sound to find food, communicate with each other and navigate.

The team collected parts of the animal, including its skull, to investigate further, Elwen said.

Originally published on Live Science.